In the US, the average life expectancy is 78 years. But there are a few places in the world—specifically Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece—where living to be over 100 isn’t uncommon at all. In these regions, known as Blue Zones, the life expectancy isn’t just higher; centenarians are generally also healthy, their minds and bodies still working well.
National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner spent years studying each culture, pinpointing the exact reasons why they thrived before publishing his findings in the best selling book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Buettner found that despite the geographical differences, people living in the Blue Zones all had nine key lifestyle habits in common, which he named the “Power 9.” Here, each pillar is explained, with input from doctors about why it’s so crucially connected to health and longevity. Keep reading for the complete intel, including how to apply the pillars to your own life.
1. Move naturally
Buettner found that in all the Blue Zones communities, movement was a regular part of daily life for the residents. The Longevity Plan author John Day, MD saw this first-hand as well when he spent a year living in remote China. Even in their advanced age, he saw centenarians working in the fields and throughout the village.
Of course, here in the States, our jobs are a lot more sedentary. But Dr. Day still says we can work this pillar into everyday life. “Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles have been engineered in a way to take movement out of our lives, so it is up to us to get in as much as we can during the day,” he says. “For example, you could take a vow to never use an elevator or escalator again unless the stairs are restricted. Other options include an evening walk or doing everything possible to avoid having to use a car. Even vacations can be scheduled in a way that are physically active, like a vacation centered around skiing, hiking, or cycling.”
Richard Honaker, MD, who works with Your Doctors Online, echoes this saying, “The more exercise you can fit into your day, the better. Even walking is good for your health.” His recommendation is to aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. “This is the bare minimum amount of exercise to do that will benefit your health,” he says.
2. Have a larger purpose
Having a clear sense of why you wake up in the morning is connected to living a long, healthy life. “Purpose is related to happiness, and happiness is associated with better health than sadness or indifference,” Dr. Honaker says.
Dr. Day adds that the connection between the mind, health, and a sense of purpose is powerful. “Whether your goal is to beat cardiovascular disease or cancer, or even to live a long and healthy life, study after study has found an association of purpose in life with all kinds of better health outcomes—an effect that stands regardless of age, sex, education or race,” he says. “You have to have a reason to get out of bed every morning. Something that pushes and motivates you. For without purpose it is next to impossible to maintain the healthy behaviors and lifestyle that is conducive to a long and healthy life.”
3. Manage your stress
PSA: Chronic stress is terrible for your health, which is why stress management is one of the pillars for living a long, healthy life. “We all have stress. The key is how you perceive your stress,” Dr. Day says. “If you view stress as something that is making you stronger or refining you then it can be a good thing. If you view stress as something destructive then it probably is.”
During his time in China, he saw that simple lifestyle habits such as eating nourishing foods, being physically active, getting good sleep, and socializing with family and neighbors all helped negate the stress the townspeople experienced, showing that the pillars are intertwined and connected to each other.
4. Eat until you are 80 percent full
Here in the States, generous, oversized portions of food are valued greatly. But in Blue Zones, Buettner found that people stopped eating when they were mostly full, not when they finished everything on their plate or were too stuffed to eat another bite. He also observed that the biggest meal of the day occurred in late afternoon or early evening, not right close to bedtime. Scientific research has shown that eating late at night is linked to unhealthy weight gain, which isn’t exactly great for lifespan.
Speaking of Blue Zones, here’s what to know about the expert-loved Mediterranean diet:
5. Stick to a plant-forward diet
While we’re on the subject of food, people in Blue Zones tend to eat a diet that’s primarily plant-based, consuming meat only a few times a month on special occasions. “Processed foods and added sugar have never shown to have a health benefit. Cutting them out is 90 percent of a a healthy diet right there,” Dr. Day says. “[In China’s longevity village], they picked their own produce and ate it the same day. And since they were essentially cut off from the rest of the world, they didn’t have any access to sugar or processed foods.” He also adds that they ate fish about twice a week, which of course brings to mind the Mediterranean diet, a long-beloved eating plan by doctors and dietitians.
6. Moderate alcohol consumption
Across Blue Zones, Buettner observed that alcohol was consumed, but moderately, at one to two glasses a day, with friends or food. This makes sense, as light to moderate drinking (particularly of wine) has been associated with a longer lifespan. According to a 2017 333,000-person, eight-year analysis, those who enjoyed an occasional drink—seven or less per week, to be exact—were 20 percent less likely to die of any cause and 25 percent to 30 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who were completely sober. The key, of course, is to be mindful.
7. Find your community
A sense of family and community is important in all Blue Zones communities, which Dr. Honaker says has been directly linked to health. “Many studies have shown lower rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and possibly even cancer for people with lots of friends and loving relationships in their lives,” he says.
Dr. Day observed first-hand how belonging affected the health of the people in China’s longevity village. “Our research showed that as long as people stayed in the village and adopted the village lifestyle, they were healthy and aging was slowed,” he says. “However, if they left for employment in one of the big cities in China then their health suffered.”
8. Stay close with family
Similarly, in Blue Zones, families tend to be close, both geographically and emotionally. Younger generations value and help care for older ones. Dr. Day says that healthy aging requires a close network of friends and family who share their health goals and values, not something people can do on their own. This may too be related to a sense of belonging. “This may be in part to the healthy lifestyles happy people adopt along with other factors we cannot measure,” Dr. Honaker says.
9. Maintain a fulfilling social life
People in Blue Zones areas not only have supportive families and communities, they actively participate in them. For some, faith may be the cornerstone of their social life, which Dr. Honaker says can provide both comfort and camaraderie through a shared beliefs system. “As with purpose, study after study suggests that having a faith may increase longevity,” Dr. Days says of this connection, adding that faith often involves frequent social gatherings. Another study published in 2016 emphasizes the importance of even casual social relationships when it comes to longevity.